The journey from South Africa to citizenship was a mixture of excitement and soul-searching for pastors Dieter and Heidi Punt and their daughter Nadia.
Now, the three are new citizens of the United States.
The South Africa natives spent months filling out paperwork, answering questions in interviews and preparing for and taking the U.S. Naturalization Test.
Troutman (N.C.) Holy Trinity Lutheran Church pastor Dieter became a U.S. citizen on June 25. Heidi, who serves as pastor of Christ United Lutheran Church in Granite Falls, and Nadia, who is a junior at Appalachian State University, made it official Thursday.
The Punts have two other children, Angelique, who lives in Botswana, and Michael, who was born in the United States. Additional family, including parents and siblings and aunts and uncles remain in South Africa.
But the Punts wanted to come to America.
Their journey to citizenship began in November.
“It’s a tedious process and not a walk in the park,” Dieter said. And while “it’s not a quick thing and it comes at a great cost financially,” he said it is a “great investment both in time and effort. We feel very blessed that (it has) gone through smoothly.”
A common thread ran through the comments of what becoming a citizen meant to each one: They could now vote, something that folks with Green Cards could not do.
“I have missed voting. If I wanted to say something, I didn’t have that privilege,” Dieter said. “I wanted to have a voice in the process of our country.”
The swearing-in ceremony took place for each one in Charlotte.
“I’m very passionate about where you are a citizen, you need to be aware of what’s going on and make faithful decisions and need to vote. It has been a soul-searching, spiritual journey,” Heidi said.
It is “exciting to officially be a part of something bigger than myself,” Nadia said. She is “also excited to be able to vote and have a say in the government.”
Dieter and Heidi grew up on opposite sides of South Africa. He’s from Cape Town near the ocean and she’s from a rural village in Paul Pietersburg, near the foothills of the mountains.
Dieter said he received the call to become a pastor at 16 while living in South Africa. After finishing school, he started his first parish in 1995, serving the church in South Africa several years. He was ordained in 1998.
Heidi’s call came on a day when the pastor decided to veer from the usual order of service and instead read the Ten Commandments.
“I remember the painting of Jesus with the children around him,” she noted. It was as if “Jesus walked out to me and let me know he loved me. I had to tell others that Jesus loved them.” She didn’t feel a woman should be a lead pastor, so she struggled with what she felt she was being called to do. She tried to bargain with God and remembers the last time she confirmed her call to go into the ministry she said, “I will go to seminary, but I don’t want to be married and I don’t want to be the lead pastor.”
Heidi said God had different plans. Hers changed when she met Dieter in seminary.
Dieter first came to the United States in 1997 when he participated in an internship at the First Lutheran Church in Pontiac, Illinois, after which he returned to South Africa to be ordained.
“I didn’t think about returning” (to the U.S.), he said.
Soon, though, he was doing just that.
The church in Illinois was seeking a second pastor. At the time he said the synod was having a shortage of pastors and didn’t have enough to provide second pastors for churches. Therefore, they contacted him to return, a move which the synod said they would support.
So, he and his family moved to the United States in November 2000.
In 2013, he received a new call, this time to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Troutman.
Heidi said that “when the call was extended to us (to come to the U.S.), my first initial thought was, ‘is this the mission field God has called us to?’ The whole idea of what would I be giving up really didn’t enter my mind at all.”
Dieter held a Green Card (officially known as a Permanent Resident Card) for 18 years. When it was time to renew, he and Heidi discussed whether or not to “go the next step.” After many conversations, “We came to realize that we see our future in the U.S., and therefore, it was time to make the step to become a citizen.”
While preparing for that big step, all three noticed how much support they had received from those around them.
Three members of Dieter’s congregation were in attendance at his swearing-in ceremony. On the Sunday following the event, he received a “big round of applause during the service. People were very supportive of ‘my change in my status.’”
There has “been a great sense of support doing this step,” he said. Congratulations are still being expressed and he also was presented with a flag which had flown over the capital.
Heidi likewise said that the members of her church are “very excited. I don’t think they really realized I wasn’t American except I sounded different. They have been very supportive.”
Friends and co-workers of Nadia’s have also been “extremely supportive,” she said. They have “helped me study and been helpful in covering shifts if I need to go” take care of responsibilities concerning the process.
“They have been my rock,” she said.
Now, she said she is “excited to see what is to come and what’s in the future.”